Divide & Rule | The case against coalitions and consensus

28 04 2010

By Daniel Hannan Politics Last updated: April 26th, 2010

The single most important feature of democracy is this: that voters regularly get a chance to turn the rascals out. Think for a moment about the countries that don’t enjoy representative government – Cuba, say, or Iran – and you’ll see why it matters.

Conversely, the chief argument against coalitions, and electoral reforms that give rise to coalitions, is this: that they tend to ensure that most parties are in power most of the time.

The Westminster system, as favoured in most Anglosphere countries, encourages a clear division between government and opposition. This division helps keep the state small and the citizen free. The party that is out of office has every reason to resist the expansion of state powers, while the party in office is wary of building a government machine that must one day fall into the hands of its opponents.

Across much of Europe, by contrast, proportional representation allows defeated politicians to bargain their way back into office. Some parties, especially liberal and centrist parties, are almost always in power, however small their share of the vote. Such factions have no interest in reducing the prerogatives of government or the privileges of politicians. Opposition falls by default to protest parties such as Belgium’s Vlaams Belang or Austria’s Freedom Party, which exist mainly as expressions of public discontent rather than as alternative administrations.

At the same time, party lists protect politicians from the consequences of their unpopularity. As long as MPs are near the top of their lists, their jobs are secure. This naturally encourages legislators to suck up to their party leaders rather than to reflect the wishes of their constituents. The political class as a whole becomes snugger and smugger.

Political scientists call the phenomenon “cartel democracy”. Austria is a fine example of the genre: its Christian Democrats and Social Democrats prop each other up like two exhausted boxers. Under a system known as the Proporz, Austrian public sector posts are carved up between the Black and Red factions, ensuring that neither party wants to reduce the government payroll.

Italy used to be an even more extreme case. In the old days of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, an Italian party membership card was a gorgeous artefact, medalled and beribboned. Everyone understood its purpose: it was an IOU, to be cashed when the relevant party took power. Silvio Berlusconi’s popularity owes much to the fact that he brought an end to that racket, and introduced a voting system designed to ensure a Westminster-style pendulum.

How perverse, then, that just as others find merit in the Westminster model, Westminster itself might ditch it. If the newspapers are to be believed, voters want a hung parliament.

I’m not sure the newspapers are right. What I’m finding on doorsteps – and I’ve spent a lot more time on them than most columnists – is what G K Chesterton called “our scorn for all men governing”.  People feel, with reason, that their politicians have become a caste apart; that Parliament fails to reflect their views; that MPs have become spokesmen for their parties in their constituencies instead of the other way around.

A coalition government would formalise they very abuses to which voters object. If the problem is that Parliament ignores public concerns on such issues as immigration and Europe, the solution is not to make the Liberal Democrats a permanent fixture of government. If the grievance is that MPs are too remote from their constituents, the redress is not a party list.

A ministry of all the talents, an end to partisan bickering, a national consensus – such have been the justifications of every dictatorship in history, from Bonaparte’s onwards.  A free country must have the ability to sack its leaders, cleanly, peaceably and decisively. Unless I am mistaken, we intend to exercise that right on May 6. Let’s not surrender it immediately thereafter.

Just what the Establishment want, Divide & Rule.  Well done fellow Britons, for we shall all be European if the Status Quo remains.  Just numbers in an ever diversive nest justifying the need for more parental control.

Doncha just love Geo-Politix?




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